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Creation and Covenant

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By Virgil - Posted on 20 July 2008

by N.T. Wright

What I mean by ‘creation and covenant’ will become clear if we consider a couple of Psalms where the two are joined together. What I intend by using that pair of evocative terms as an initial way in to Paul will then become clear if we consider three central passages in which the same themes play the same kind of roles. This will open the way to a more detailed consideration of what, I shall argue, must be regarded as part of the fundamental structure of his thought, and how it relates to the other themes which will occupy us in subsequent chapters.The first Psalm is no. 19, a spectacular poem made more so by Joseph Haydn: ‘The heavens are telling the glory of God’. But Haydn’s setting, which never got beyond verse 1, can actually distract us from what the writer is doing. The psalm isn’t just a poem about the glory of creation. It divides into two more or less equal halves (vv. 1–6 and 7–14), and it is the juxtaposition of these which opens the door to the view of creation and covenant which, I shall suggest, remains at the heart of Judaism and, as I shall argue, was always central for Paul.

The first six verses are a paean of praise to God for his creation, celebrating the fact that creation itself praises God and declares his glory without speech or language but yet with great power and force. ‘Their sound has gone out into all the world, and their words to the ends of the earth.’ Within this, the psalmist celebrates the power and strength of the sun. ‘Nothing is hidden,’ he declares, ‘from its searching heat.’ Then, without warning, he switches to the second half of the poem, which is a similar paean of praise for Torah, the Law of YHWH. Torah does in human life what the sun does within creation: it brings the light, power and searching, probing heat of YHWH’s presence into the depths of the human heart. Torah is, of course, the covenant charter of Israel, the Law given to bind Israel to YHWH, to establish the nation as his people. With Torah as its guide, Israel is the unique, chosen people of the one creator God. The same point is made graphically at the end of Psalm 147: YHWH, the creator, declares his statutes and ordinances to Israel, but he has not done so with any other nation, and they have no knowledge of his laws (147.19–20). The ‘Alleluia’ which concludes the psalm indicates well enough how creation and covenant sit together: Israel celebrates its unique vocation as the creator’s chosen people, the people who know the secrets of the universe and are called to live by its otherwise hidden rules, while the other nations blunder around in darkness.

The second psalm I cite for my main point has a very different mood, but the same underlying theology. Psalm 74 is a lament, a complaint against the powerful heathen nations who have ravaged Jerusalem. ‘O God, why have you cast us off forever; why does your anger smoke against the sheep of your pasture? . . . Your enemies have roared within your holy place, they have set up their banners there, and have hacked down all the carved work with axes and hammers. . . . How long, O Lord? Why don’t you do something?’

Then in verse 12 (those who relish the Anglican choral tradition will know that this moment invites a change of chant from a lament in a minor key to a strong statement in a major key) the Psalmist appeals over the head of the powerful pagan nations to the creator God, the God by whose power Israel came out of Egypt. ‘Yet God is my king of old; you divided the sea by your power, you broke the heads of Leviathan in the waters. . . . Yours is the day, yours also is the night, you have established the light and the sun; you have fixed the boundaries of the earth, you have made summer and winter.’ When everything is tottering and crashing all around, in other words, look back to Genesis 1, and to the evidences that the creator’s power has in the past been made known on Israel’s behalf. Then the Psalm can return to the lament in verse 18, and complaint: ‘Remember this, O YHWH, how the enemy scoffs, how a foolish people blaspheme your name.’

Two very different Psalms, each drawing on the same theology of creation and covenant. The one celebrates creation, and within that celebrates Torah as the covenant charter designed to enable each individual Israelite to become a whole, cleansed, integrated human being; the other complains that the pagans are laying Israel waste, and invokes the covenant God as also the creator God who has the power, the right and the responsibility to deal with evil. There are many other examples, but I choose these both because they are so graphic and clear, and because they point to some of the themes which I shall propose as central for Paul.

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Starlight's picture

This is a nice little section from Wrights book on Paul. I have much of this chapter highlighted in my copy of the book. I would like to take this opportunity though to highlight a common misapplication that Wright makes in this chapter and how that misapplication distorts some of his theology.

Wright has a subtle presupposition that runs throughout this chapter that is built upon a faulty understanding of Genesis 1:26 and its timing. Let’s look at some of his quotes that I have in mind.

“and combining it with the assertion that JESUS IS THE TRUE IMAGE OF GOD, IN OTHER WORDS, THE TRUE FULFILMENT OF GENESIS 1.26F.”

“The end result is the creation of a new type of human beings, ONCE MORE IN THE IMAGE OF GOD but now, more specifically, IN THE IMAGE OF THE RISEN MESSIAH: as we have born the image of the earthly human being, we shall also bear the image of the heavenly one”

“the failure of human beings to BE THE TRULY IMAGEBEARING creatures God intended results, therefore, in corruption and death.”

“The family of Abraham, who themselves share in the evil, as well as in the IMAGEBEARING vocation, of the REST OF HUMANITY,”

What Wright has assumed in these excerpts is derived from the last quote is that “imagebearing” of God is an attribute provided to all Humanity at the beginning of creation. There could be nothing more fundamentally mistaken about Genesis than this position concerning the “Image of God”.

Wright doesn’t grasp the sequence of Genesis 1 versus Genesis 2:4 and fails to realize that Gen 1 is an introductory prologue foretelling the upcoming story that actually begins in Gen 2:4. The story ends with Christ creating faithful men in God/Christ image during the last days subsequently bringing in the eternal Sabbath Rest of God. (Gen 2:1-3). This becomes clear with a close examination especially notating that there were an abundance of plants created before Man’s creation in God’s image in Gen 1 but in Gen 2:5 there was no plants available and also man (Adam) was created only in God’s likeness). By the way the plants in question in these two chapters are spiritual metaphors relating to fruits and seed whether good or bad, they are simply theological thematic images found throughout the scriptures.

Wright is correct in the first quote above but if you notice in the second statement he says that humans will be created “ONCE MORE IN THE IMAGE OF GOD”, he then goes on to correctly state that we have born the image of the “earthy human” and so we shall bear the image of the Heavenly one. Now when one thinks about that contradiction that we find in this one sentence it (the contradiction) should start to become apparent to those who understand the theology of Christ the redeemer. If indeed we (or Adam for that matter) had borne the Image of God from the beginning then there would have been no need for Christ to come to redeem us from an earthy mode of existence as there would have been the Heavenly mode from the beginning. (Being placed in the Garden does not equate to the Image as Adam was put there to work the ground from the human standpoint).

Wright in the next quote (#3) recognizes the inability of man to bear the image of God resulting in corruption and death. So he has just seemingly contradicted his idea that man could have ever borne the Image of God originally which is also contradicted by Gen 5:1.

“This is the written account of Adam's line. WHEN GOD CREATED MAN, HE MADE HIM IN THE LIKENESS OF GOD.” (Big difference between likeness and image)

This brings us to the last quote in which Wright again overreaches in his understanding and declares the imagebearing of the rest of humanity. Now the family of Abraham was indeed fully created in God’s image at the Parousia (Heb 11:39-40) but humanity at large never bore God’s image (even Adam) until they call on the name of the Lord through faith in the one God and only then at the consummation of the Age in AD70.

I just wanted to highlight how a misreading of early Genesis can lead to contradictory theology even by the best of our theologians. Other than that this is a very good little section out of Wrights book and worth the read.


Norm Voss

JL's picture


I never had a chance to show you the pictures of ancient tablets I have. They all end with a collophon or footer

name of author
date written

Notice, Gen. 2:4

These are the generations (TOLEDAH)
of the heavens and of the earth (name of author)
when they were created, in the day that the LORD God made the earth and the heavens (date written)

Gen. 2:4 is the end of the first tablet, not the beginning of the second one.



JL Vaughn
Beyond Creation Science

Starlight's picture


I’m aware of Wisemans’ Hypothesis on this discussion but what I base my division upon is the structure of Genesis. If you are familiar with Jordan’s and Cassuto’s word count work in Daniel and Genesis you will see why I lean upon that criteria instead of Wisemans archeological approach. The description of God (Elohim) is used exclusively from Gen 1:1-2:3 and it denotes the use of the all encompassing God. The word count for Elohim is found 35 times in that section which is 5X7 and fits the Hebrew numerological pattern of the use of key words in sections.

In Gen 2:4 we have the introduction of Jehovah (Yahweh) combined with Elohim to compliment the beginning story of the personal God of the Hebrews namely Adam. I do not have my Genesis book from Cassuto with me but the word count is again 35 and ends before Gen 5:1 which is another 5X7 section and combines for the significant Hebrew number 70 for the two sections together. Therefore the theological Hebrew intent of the author along with the introduction of the Hebrew personal God Jehovah (Yahweh) fits perfectly into Gen 2:4 as the beginning of this particular section. There is also a further breakdown within that section that is numerologicaly significant and would be destroyed if we incorporated 2:4 in the preceding first section.

Wisemans work is interesting but it is simply overridden by the Hebrew theological purpose in constructing of Hebrew literature. It is not unusual to appropriate much from the ANE era but the Hebrews had a habit of taking what they wanted and discarding the rest. They (Hebrews) were interested in actually confronting the ANE culture and this would make sense for their works to oppose and caricature the ANE literature approach.

Jeff, I’ll quote from Jordan in his Daniel appendix page 701where he actually discusses this, but Cassuto does so in even more detail in his book. Now you will notice that Jordan tries to divide the Gen 2:4 verse in two so that he may keep a portion in the first section. I don’t buy it though as it shouldn’t be divided there. He does recognize though that Yahweh can only work in the next section due to the word count and leaves it with that section.

Begin quote:

“Part of this purpose of this essay is to help convince the doubtful that the author of Daniel did indeed use words numerically. In each chapter of this commentary we look at this, but I am certain that some readers are dubious. In fact, however, recent scholarship has begun to delve into many parts of the Bible examining this phenomena. Recent studies in the book of Revelation, a book quite similar to Daniel of course, have observed the numerically significant use of key words and phrases. At the opposite end, it can be observed that in the account of creation (Genesis 1:1 – 2:4a), the word “God” appears 35 times, which is 5x7, and links with the 7-day character of the narrative. “Yahweh God” appears 20 times in the
second story, Genesis 2:4b–3:24. “Yahweh” alone is used in Genesis 4, and appears 10 times. This is no accident; it is literary artistry.”


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